Saigon should worship the ground beneath her feet

By Le Vu Huy Nam   February 17, 2020 | 04:26 pm PT
Vietnam's biggest metropolis has some uncultivated real estate that can yield a bumper harvest - its underground space.
Le Vu Huy Nam

Le Vu Huy Nam

More than 10 years ago, when I looked at the design of an underground parking project in downtown Saigon's Le Van Tam Park, I felt a strong desire for it be built and completed as soon as possible.

In those days, Saigon did not even have as many as shopping malls as it does nowadays, let alone underground shopping centers. Every time I traveled abroad and spent time hanging out and shopping in underground metro stations, I would wish that one day, Saigon could have such underground spaces designed to receive natural light, populated with shopping malls, dining areas, cinemas and convenience stores.

In my imagination, it would be an attractive space, green, bustling and exciting, boosting both day-time and night-time economies.

Recently on a rainy day, I did not have to work and wanted to go out all day with the family, shopping, dining and having fun.

The plan was to visit the three shopping malls that are close to each other - Parkson, Vincom and Takashimaya – in District 1. We would arrive at Parkson first, leave our car at a parking lot across the street since this mall has just one parking basement and it is for motorbikes only, and walk several hundred meters to the building. After we are done there, we would drive to Vincom, park in its basement before going up for more shopping, and maybe dining. Then we would get the car out of the basement, drive less than one kilometer to Takashimaya, and park in the basement there. Later, if we want to go elsewhere, like the iconic Ben Thanh Market, we would have to walk or call a cab because finding a place to park a car in that area would be a problem.

Complicated as this sounds, the plan fails to consider another factor - a sudden downpour followed by a temperature of more than 30 degrees Celsius, which is not atypical. In the rain or scorching sun, our expedition could prove an annoying experience, ending prematurely if one of us got tired and angry at not only the weather, but the traffic, and the possibility of being robbed when walking along downtown streets. Such imaginations played on our mind, and after some discussion, we decided to stay at home.

Let me clarify that my family are not rich consumers who frequent shopping malls. However, if other consumers out there have similar thoughts, shopping centers will suffer.

Work at the underground station of Saigons metro line No.1 near Ben Thanh Market, September 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Work at the underground station of Saigon's metro line No.1 near Ben Thanh Market, September 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Now, all these discouraging factors keeping households away would disappear if the shopping malls in the heart of a city that is currently home to 13 million were connected by an underground system like those in the Europe or Japan.

If there were connections under Dong Khoi, Le Loi, Le Duan and Le Thanh Ton streets in District 1, for instance, we would not have to waste time and money parking our car and experience unpleasant feelings as the parking fee in this area is the highest in the city and is calculated based on the parking time, apart from contending with the unwelcome attitude of the staff at the parking lots.

We could also walk away from the situation of having to call a cab for a real short distance when it rains and face the anger and annoyance of the driver. If HCMC has a connected underground world, our life would be much more convenient.

Digging into the problem

For many years now, the city has been calling for investment from the private sector for underground projects, with particular focus on parking lots under the Le Van Tam Park and Trong Dong Theater in District 1. Most recently, private investments were sought for a parking area along Le Loi Street next to the first metro line.

But the planning scheme for underground spaces that I saw more than a decade ago has now fallen into oblivion and until today, we are yet to see a single underground parking lot, let alone a master plan for an underground network in the city. With modern construction techniques available these days, people can dig as much as five-six floors deep and make the best of that extra space.

I decided to find out why all of the plans had been put on hold and it turns out that the reason is not so serious: the city authorities and the private investors have not found common ground. For years, the obstacle to the development underground urban spaces and parking lots has been the disagreement between the administration and investors over prices and the business model to be applied.

The building costs for an underground parking lot is three times what is needed for a normal one on the ground. If the parking fees are too low, the investors will not be able to recover their investment capital, far less earn profits. But current regulations do not allow investors to raise the parking fees, which are set and managed by the city. To ensure they will not operate at a loss, investors want to take advantage of the remaining space for commercial services. If the ratio of such services is too low, their business will become cost-inefficient, but a high commercial rate could affect the function of the parking area.

A failure to reach a satisfactory solution for all stakeholders has been the bottleneck.

What are the feasible solutions that the city can come to creat additional parking space, and at the same time, create conveniences for city citizens and guarantee benefits for the investors?

First, all stakeholders have to see that the underground urban system, including roads, parking lots, shopping centers, dining and entertainment areas, is not a separate public project but a part of a much bigger picture: the city’s master plan for urban development. All other projects around the underground space, from real estate to business projects, community projects, and tourist services will definitely enjoy advantages created by the underground area.

Once this is seen, the city should take the initiative to establish a consortium of the state and private investors. Members of the consortium will work together to decide how to share investment costs, how to connect their own projects with the underground space and how to operate them to ensure financial benefits for all.

In return, the investors should be offered preferential treatment such as an extra floor area or land use fee exemption. In such deals, there would be no need to exchange land for infrastructure and by using the "bonus" floor area ratio, the state can still call for capital from private investors while imposing certain terms and conditions.

This consortium model has been applied in many countries, but it needs a tight connection between the state and the investors. It also requires that the investors are well aware of their role and obligation in contributing to the community, while the state must ensure transparency and a balance of benefits.

We do not lack good urban planners, but we do need a mechanism to identify and exploit talent in other areas so that we can jointly solve difficulties that the city faces.

Of course, it cannot be emphasized enough that the city authorities have to remain focused on public benefit even as it ensures that investors get a return on their investment.

The bottom line is this: the development of underground spaces in HCMC should be an above the board process.

*Le Vu Huy Nam is an architect. The opinions expressed here are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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